The First Refugees in America
by Paul Kerson
Mar 14, 2017 | 10482 views | 0 0 comments | 377 377 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Thanksgiving, the whole family gathered at my house – four generations of Americans – from my 91-year-old parents to my eight-month-old granddaughter.

Everyone in between was there too, children, siblings, spouses, nieces, nephews, boyfriends, girlfriends and cousins of all descriptions.

I read to them all exactly what William Bradford had to say about the very first Thanksgiving in November 1621. He is known in history as the first Governor of Massachusetts, but that is not entirely accurate.

In 1621, he was not a governor as we understand that term today. He headed up a painfully small band of refugees on a tiny ship escaping from “apparitors and pursuivants”.

These were Church of England officials charged with enforcing conformity to church doctrine. They were empowered to imprison non-conformists.

Bradford’s group of refugees did not care for Church of England Doctrine, and thus organized their own cvhurch in the Village of Scrooby, Yorkshire, England, where they suffered the “wrath of his uncles” and the “scoff of his neighbors.”

They were “hunted and persecuted on every side.”

Bradford’s congregation thus removed themselves to Holland, first Amsterdam and then Leyden. After 11 to 12 years there, poor economic circumstances caused them to seek refuge in “those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation.”

So the group returned to Southampton, England, and boarded the Mayflower for America on July 22, 1620. They called themselves “the Pilgrims,” named for the New Testament passage in Hebrews “that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth, now they desire a better country.”

The voyage was hard. Establishing a settlement was harder yet. Of the 102 Mayflower refugees, four died before reaching Massachusetts. Another 46 were lost by the summer of 1621.

But in November of 1621, things were looking better. The tiny band of Pilgrim refugees met with 90 men loyal to Native American King Massasoit, and they feasted for three days.

Of the very first Thanksgiving feast, Bradford wrote: “And besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards to write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

So then, 52 Pilgrim refugees from England met 90 Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in November 1621 to celebrate the first Thanksgiving, the welcoming of these 52 from imprisonment by “apparitors and pursuivants” to the blessings of a bountiful harvest in the land of King Massasoit of Massachusetts.

In 1621, William Bradford was hardly a governor. That is historical overreaching. He was the leader of a group of desperate refugees, seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. In America’s King Massasoit, he and his Pilgrim refugees found the peace and prosperity they could not achieve in England or Holland.

From these 52 Pilgrim refugees and 90 Native American hosts in 1621, more than 323,000,000 Americans celebrated the 395th Thanksgiving in 2016.

This is quite a success story in the welcoming of refugees from around the world.

How dare we not welcome Syrian refugees and others seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity 395 years later, refugees fleeing the very same intolerant “apparitors and pursuivants” just as William Bradford and his Pilgrims were mistreated in England some 400 years ago?

Shame on our 2017 federal government, an administration that does not understand American history, American values nor the spirit of generosity that runs with our land taught to us by King Massasoit and Governor Bradford back in November 1621 at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth.

American history is full of times when the American Thanksgiving ideal has been ignored as it is today: African-American enslavement, American Indian subjugation, Japanese-American internment and closed doors to American Jews’ doomed European brothers and sisters.

These are four of the more horrific examples.

But these national failures are contrary to the American Thanksgiving ideal, that generosity of spirit that King Massasoit showed to Governor Bradford and his surviving group of Pilgrim refugees that we all celebrate with great feasting every November these last 395 years.

We grew to 323,000,000 people and we prospered because of the American Thanksgiving ideal, and in spite of our fears, not the other way around.

Our 2017 federal government must re-learn this lesson, or our future Thanksgivings will be meaningless. How will we ever explain “closed doors” to our children and grandchildren?

Paul Kerson is a past President of the Queens County Bar Association and pro bono counsel to the Queens Historical Society.

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